Legosity

So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself. Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’ And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’ I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself. The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them. As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar. Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. In classical Greek, λέγω means ‘I put in order, I arrange, I gather’: which are certainly things that you do with Lego, and indeed with any toy worth having. It also means ‘I choose, I count, I reckon’: the basic methods by which the creative process works on the raw materials furnished by the imagination. It means ‘I say, I speak,’ and even ‘I mean’. And – most important of all, for our present purpose – it means ‘I tell a story’. Stories, in whatever medium, are more complex than toy bricks, for they have extension in time as well as (imagined) space. They move, within their own confines, or they do not exist at all. But the tropes and elements and imaginative bits and pieces that go into a story function very much like Lego bricks. You can spend years of your life inventing a monster that will metaphorically express the horror of death and the fear of lost identity; or you can dip into the barrel of Lego bits and fish out a ghost, a zombie, or the vampire’s enslaved and unwilling bride. Every story ever written, probably, uses some of this conceptual Lego; for some of the pieces are older than writing itself. If I wanted to make up a bogus etymology for legosity, I would pretend that it did not come from Lego at all. I would choose the Latin form, lego, which means ‘I choose’, and ‘I gather’, and also ‘I read’ (originally in the sense of reading aloud). I would make up an adjective legosus, which would mean ‘well-chosen’ and also ‘worth reading’; from which one naturally gets the abstract noun legositas, which goes into English as legosity – and there you are. But I shall not dissemble. I got the word from my brain, and my brain got it from Lego. Legosity, then, is the quality that makes an idea go easily into stories. Things that have legosity tend to connect together easily, like Lego bricks. They are adaptable and reusable; their play-value is not exhausted in one telling. There are thousands of stories about Robin Hood, and tens of thousands about vampires. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, monsters, perils, and things of nameless dread: these are some of the simple bricks that have gone into stories from time immemorial. They are conceptual Lego, and they are free for anybody to use. Because they are free, they are taken for granted; because they are not original, they are not striking. They don’t contribute to any story’s ozamataz. The Wheel of Time contains barrels of conceptual Lego, swiped or stolen or recycled from every great story-cycle known to Western man: which, I believe, was the author’s intention. But it has precious little originality. When you take it apart to play with the pieces, you find that all the pieces are somebody else’s. From Dune, you have the secret magic sisterhood that controls the fates of families and nations, the Bene Gesserit (renamed Aes Sedai); and the shockingly male creature that sets the world on its ear by having access to the magic and ignoring the sisterhood, the Kwisatz Haderach (renamed Dragon Reborn); and the wild desert-dwelling people who have a hard-won lore of their own, with whom nobody can tangle and not regret it – the Fremen (renamed Aiel). From Tolkien – well, the very first page of Jordan’s interminable saga mentions ‘the Third Age’ and ‘the Mountains of Mist’, and if that isn’t straight-up theft with the serial numbers left in blatant sight, I don’t know what it is. Nobody writes Wheel of Time fan fiction – at least none worth speaking of – for The Wheel of Time is itself fan fiction, in which all the fandoms collide together. The works or franchises that I mentioned earlier, the ones that have long-lived and fruitful fandoms – the ones, as I put it, with ozamataz – all have this in common: they have original toys. They contribute new conceptual Lego to the barrel. ‘Who can invent a new leaf, or a new story?’ Tolkien asked – and then answered his own question, by inventing a whole botanical garden of new leaves, and resurrecting old ones that had been forgotten since the Middle Ages. It is this quality of primary invention – the new ideas, the new toys – that I shall refer to as ‘legosity’ hereafter. And I shall refer to the ideas or toys themselves as lego, with a small L, to distinguish them from the (trademarked) building toys. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has had ozamataz for more than a century, has this kind of legosity in abundance. Everybody in our culture knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; but few people know that the Three Bears were invented less than two hundred years ago by Robert Southey, or that Goldilocks was added to the tale at a later date (to its great improvement). Everybody knows the legos of the first Oz book; and everybody attributes them. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion; the Good Witches of the North and South, the Wicked Witches of the West and East; the Silver Shoes (which became Ruby Slippers in the movie, the better to show off in Technicolor); the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, the Land of Oz, and of course, the Wizard himself, hiding behind a curtain while he dazzles the world with special effects – all these things are part of our popular culture, and we know exactly where they came from. You can go through each one of the works or franchises that I listed in ‘Ozamataz’, and identify the bits that give each one its legosity. When I perform this exercise, I find myself marvelling at the sheer richness of our storytelling heritage – the vast and delightful variety of legos that our imaginations have to play with. So— From the original Star Trek: the U.S.S. Enterprise; Starfleet and the Federation; Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons; warp drive (very differently imagined from the point-to-point ‘jump drive’ then common in science fiction); phasers, photon torpedoes, communicators, tricorders; the transporter beam; the Vulcan Nerve Pinch. From the original Doctor Who: Timelords and the TARDIS; regeneration; sonic screwdrivers; the Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Sontarans; the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which is narratively important, because it sets boundaries on the kinds of paradoxes that so many time-travel stories have snarled themselves up in. From Star Wars (the first film only): Darth Vader, droids, Jedi Knights, light sabres, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, jawas, dogfights in space, the Force, and of course Mos Eisley, the ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’, of which the cantina was merely the most theatrical part. From The Hobbit (leaving aside The Lord of the Rings): hobbits; Gandalf; Thror’s Map, with its runes and key; the Stone-trolls; Elrond Half-elven and the Last Homely House; orcs and the Great Goblin; Beorn the skin-changer, the Eagles, the Wood-elves; Mirkwood, Lake-town, the Lonely Mountain; and of course Smaug the Magnificent, Chiefest of Calamities. You can, I am sure, make lists of your own, from the fandoms you participate in, and from things you know to have ozamataz; and they will probably bear a fair resemblance to the five I have given. Let us look over these lists a little more closely, and see what they have in common, and whether we can draw any conclusions from that. To begin with, you may notice that the lead characters of each work are not included. There are several reasons for this. In fantastic fiction, the protagonist is often a sort of Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer (who is not a giant himself) or Alice in Wonderland – a relatively ordinary sort of person with whom the reader can easily identify, and to whom all the fantastic new inventions can be revealed and explained one by one, so that we can follow along. There is another kind of protagonist, the larger-than-life kind, who participates in the legosity of the story himself. Bilbo is a very minor example of this, for he is a hobbit, and we have to be introduced to the concept of hobbits; but he is so very much like a solid English squire of the nineteenth century, or the earlier twentieth, that he is encountering all the other marvels of Middle-earth for the first time, and therefore serves as our Everyman once we have got him soundly introduced. Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Robin Hood, are all examples of the larger-than-life leads. Let us take Superman as an easy case to analyse. Much of the legosity of the Superman comics is embodied in the lead character himself; but he has to be unbundled. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’: there we have three legos to start off with. Moreover, Superman can fly. He has X-ray vision. He is vulnerable to Kryptonite. He is really Kal-El, the last survivor (so far as we knew at the outset) of the catastrophe that destroyed the planet Krypton. He has a secret identity as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet. We can easily take Superman to pieces in this way, and each of the pieces can be reused and recombined independently. So it is not the character of Superman who is a lego, but each of his salient qualities taken individually. In the same way, Luke Skywalker begins as a farm boy, and only slowly learns to become a Jedi Knight. Dorothy is an ordinary little girl from Kansas before the cyclone transports her to the Land of Oz. Captain Kirk is thoroughly familiar with the workings of his own ship, but for the most part he discovers the new lego bits along with his audience, as he boldly goes where no man has gone before. It would seem that we can make a general rule: Protagonists themselves are not legos, but their special attributes can be legos. What else do we find? Supporting characters can be legos by nature, either because of their abilities or because of their kinds. Gandalf starts off, in The Hobbit, as a lego by ability: he is a Wizard, and can do various kinds of interesting magic, and is moreover a kind of walking travelogue, who can instantly explain to the other characters what kind of trouble they are getting themselves into. (He had to go away in the middle third of the book, by narrative necessity. Having him around would have made things too easy for Thorin’s Quest.) In The Lord of the Rings, it turns out that Gandalf is a lego by kind: one of the Five Wizards, the Istari, the messengers (angels, literally, in the etymological sense) from the West, sent to oppose the evil of Sauron. Places and things can also be legos. Spaceships are a kind of generic lego; we use them without attributing them to any particular creator. But the Millennium Falcon is a new lego in its own right: the rickety, patched-together old smuggler’s ship, not the least bit elegant or streamlined or futuristic – space travel’s answer to the rusted-out jalopy. The Death Star, the space warship so huge that it can be mistaken for a moon, becomes an original lego by sheer force of scale. Things blow up in space battles, but the power to blow up a whole planet becomes a threat of a different kind. Mirkwood is a lego – the very name tells us what kind of trouble to expect there, and Tolkien delivers abundantly on its promise. Mordor, too, is a lego, the terminally diseased and polluted country, ‘dying but not yet dead’, where tormented nature is an adversary in its own right – the country whose very name sounds like murder. Lothlórien, the enchanted elfland where time stands still, is a lego, some of whose properties I have used for other purposes myself. Technologies and ‘magic systems’ – a hateful phrase, for magic and system are two things that seldom go well together – are also common types of lego. The phaser is not just a zap gun, but a gun that can be set to stun: that is, a lethal weapon that, by a deliberate exercise of prudence or mercy, can be used non-lethally. The light sabre is not just a fancy sword, but the Jedi version of a Swiss Army knife: it can cut through metal or deflect blaster fire, and yet be safely and unobtrusively stowed upon one’s person. The Force is a lego, and not just a fancy name for ‘psi’, because of its quiddity, its determinate and often inconvenient nature. A Jedi controls the Force, but the Force also controls him. It has a light side and a dark side, and if you make a habit of using the dark side, ‘for ever will it dominate your destiny’. There seems to be a kind of critical mass for legosity. To develop ozamataz, it seems, a work needs to have something like ten to fifteen good, solid legos that people will readily remember and enjoy playing with. This, I think, is what sets apart the major imaginative works, the ones that have their own fandoms and ozamataz, from merely successful books or films that never give rise to that kind of audience participation. Some examples: The chestburster from Alien is a fine and memorable lego, but it is the only new lego in that movie; the rest is a recycling of common science-fiction tropes. You can easily play with chestbursters by combining them with legos from other sources (Alien Vs. Predator), but the world in which they originated does not have enough of its own legos to be worth playing in. Back to the Future has many fans, and several legos of its own – the time-travelling DeLorean, the flux capacitor, the ‘Mr. Fusion’ converter kit – but most of the story is constructed from existing pieces, so it does not inspire further creativity and has never really developed its own fandom. There are, sadly, some properties that have abundant legosity, but have been blocked from developing ozamataz by some fatal flaw. A good cautionary example is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Stephen R. Donaldson is one of the world’s great lego inventors. From the first book alone, I can think of a good dozen. Since most of my Loyal Readers are not Donaldson fans, I shall give a brief account of each, and what gives it the power of legosity:
  • The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
  • The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
  • Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
  • The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
  • Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
  • Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
  • Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
  • The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
  • Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
  • The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
  • The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
  • White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.
These are all striking and engaging legos, with immense play-value; and the Covenant books, back in the day, sold millions of copies. Yet there is relatively little in the way of Covenant fandom, and hardly any fan fiction or other signs of ozamataz. Partly, this is because Donaldson himself is jealous of his creation, and has made it known that he does not like other people to play with his legos; and his fans, unlike those of some other authors, generally respect that. But mostly, it is because the Thomas Covenant books are flawed, and the name of the flaw is Thomas Covenant. The protagonist of the series – you cannot possibly call him a hero – is one of the most repulsive characters in modern fiction, and that is saying something. To begin with, a protagonist is supposed to be a character with a problem that he wishes to solve; but Covenant has a problem that he cannot solve, and he has invested his whole identity in the proposition that it is insoluble. He is a leper, and in the 1970s, when the books were written, leprosy was still an incurable disease; historically, it had the same kind of stigma that AIDS has had in more recent times. To help him survive, he has been trained in a rigorous discipline that puts physical self-preservation above all else. ‘You cannot hope for a cure,’ he is told. So when he is transported to the Land, where a cure is possible, he flatly refuses to believe in any of it. When his leprosy is apparently cured by Earthpower, he thinks he is dreaming, and rapes the young girl who gave him the cure. This is the point at which thousands of readers threw the book against the wall, never to pick it up again. For those who remain, the story becomes a dreary slog through Covenant’s self-loathing and self-pity, occasionally redeemed by his efforts to save the Land. He is uniquely equipped to resist an enemy called ‘the Despiser’; everyone already despises him, himself included. Lord Foul cannot manipulate him with despair, because he is already living without hope. This is ingenious, if you like, but it is also very depressing. The sort of people who build up fandoms and generate ozamataz, as a general thing, do not care for dreary and depressing stories. Most of them give up on the Covenant books before they even get to the fun bits. They are repelled by the lead character, and never find out about the legos. So it does seem that the protagonist, who is never a lego in his own right, has a vital role to play in legosity. The lead character in a story or series, we might say, has to be a good playmate. He has to be someone that the reader likes to identify with; someone who plays with the legos himself, and whom the fans can imagine playing with them in different ways and combinations. A child can play at being Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Nobody with a healthy disposition would play at being Thomas Covenant. Of course, it is perfectly possible for a work to have a likable protagonist, clever worldbuilding, and a barrel of perfectly wonderful legos, and never catch on with the public. Examples are hard to give, for obvious reasons. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, is an instructive case. Hodgson’s very strange and arresting novel was published about a century ago, and unlike the Oz books, attracted no interest and virtually no audience. It did not help that it was written in a strange, mock-archaic style, weirdly at odds with the far-future setting. Still worse, it was a fantasy aimed at an adult audience just when Modernism was getting its literary grip, and fantasy was generally thought to be fit only for children. But what legos it had! The Last Redoubt! The Watchers! The Air-Clog! The Earth Current! The Abhumans! The Diskos! The Night Land itself, where the sun has been extinguished and the earth is overrun by alien monsters, is a more powerful bit of lego than anything in H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself described The Night Land as ‘one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written’. It deserved a following, and just lately, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Andy Robertson, and to the brilliant (and professionally published) fan fiction by John C. Wright, it has finally found one. But for a hundred years, it languished in obscurity, because it lacked one crucial element: luck. To an extent, an author can make his own luck. This is far truer now, when anyone can publish an ebook and make it available to the whole Internet-connected world, than in Hodgson’s day, when books had to be expensively printed, and distribution was difficult and dodgy. As recently as ten years ago, a book could go out of print in months or even weeks and be forgotten, seemingly for ever. But now we are living in wonderfully different times. The sheer overabundance of books (and films, and TV shows, and games) available to us is daunting. But we need not be daunted as authors; for our audiences know how to find us, if we know how to make ourselves findable. Other people have written more ably than I ever could about the problem of discovery; but I shall, I hope, have something to say about that, from my own angle, another time. Meanwhile, I can say this with confidence: There is not much truth in the slogan, ‘Build it, and they will come.’ But if you can get your work discovered, it is quite fair to say: ‘Make the legos, and they will build.’ Legosity leads to ozamataz, just as surely as seeds lead to plants. Not every seed is viable, and not every viable seed falls on good soil. But every tree and blade of grass grew from a seed; and every fandom with ozamataz grew because a story had legosity.

Ozamataz

I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques. I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word. And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  It is fairly clear, at least, how Key & Peele (or their writers) came up with the name. It is a portmanteau of Oz with razz(a)matazz. My handy Oxford dictionary app defines the latter word: ‘noisy, showy, and exciting activity and display designed to attract and impress’. Oz, of course, was the name (or title) of the great and powerful and eponymous Wizard, whose magic consisted of little else but razzmatazz. Ozamataz must be the kind of razzmatazz in which the Wizard of Oz specialized. Oz, by his own admission, was a humbug. He was, he insisted, a very good man, but a very bad wizard. This gave him an endearing quality that one does not usually find among frauds and con men. Dorothy and her friends very much wanted his magic to be real; and the Wizard’s three bits of real magic all worked powerfully on that desire, and gave three of the lead characters their hearts’ desires through a cunning twist on the placebo effect. The film, in this respect, is better than the book. Oz gave them recognition for the qualities that they actually had, but believed themselves to lack entirely: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a testimonial for the Tin Woodman, a medal for the Cowardly Lion. Alas, no amount of recognition could send Dorothy back to Kansas: placebos have their limits. But we leave Oz with the feeling that the Wizard not only meant well, but did well and even ruled well; even though his magic was three parts bluff and one part showmanship. The American children who made up L. Frank Baum’s original readership felt this quality keenly. None of Baum’s other books were very successful, but children took Oz to their hearts. They loved the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman precisely for the brain and heart that they themselves never knew they had; and they loved the Wizard for the very real magic that he could do, despite thinking of himself as a humbug. Literature is full of characters who are merely flawed. The heroes of Oz are heroic precisely because of the battles they fight to overcome their flaws – battles that they win, generally speaking, without knowing it. Baum did not want to write any sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was the children who made him do it. After several years, he gave in to the overwhelming pressure of his fan mail (and the dead, gloomy silence with which his other works were received), and wrote The Land of Oz, a brilliantly successful sequel, and a comic-strip spinoff, which was successful without being brilliant. Still further delays followed before he began the long string of Oz sequels from Ozma of Oz to Glinda of Oz, the fourteenth book in the series. He then died; but Oz did not die with him. On the whole, none of the sequels matched the quality of the first two books. At the time, Oz was something fresh: a joyous head-on collision between the traditional European fairy tale, with its trappings of magic and royalty, and the anarchic humour of the American tall tale. The first Oz books represent a spree of inventiveness never seen in either of those literary forms, and seldom rivalled in the fantasy genre of later times. After that, Baum had to ration out his creativity more carefully. Most of the later Oz books have glimmers of the original brilliance, enough (eked out with shameless recycling of the original material) to keep the fans entertained and the letters (and royalties) coming in. The later books are somewhat spoilt by sentimentality. Baum kept dragging in the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman long after he had run out of things to say about them, because the children demanded it. In the fourth book, straightforwardly entitled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he brought back the two leading characters from the first book, and completed the ensemble. Ozma taught the Wizard real magic, and Dorothy made her permanent home in Oz; and that, though it was just what the fans had asked for, killed them both. The essence of the Wizard is that he was a humbug who accomplished good and great deeds by clever fakery; the essence of Dorothy is that she wanted to go home. Without their essence, all that remained was a rather twee appearance. But if the fans of Oz could tell the difference, they were not experienced or critical enough to tell why the revived Wizard and Dorothy were less successful than the originals. Baum’s death did not end the clamour for more Oz books. The series was handed off to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote more than twenty books in the series before tiring of her own formula. She gave it up in 1939, the very year that the film version of The Wizard of Oz brought Baum’s creation to a new mass audience. The series was then continued by John R. Neill, who had illustrated every book from The Land of Oz on. Neill wrote three more books before his own death. At this point, Ozamataz begins to resemble Ouroboros, the world-serpent biting its own tail. The next author of an official Oz book (after the hiatus of the Second World War) was Jack Snow, who had been a twelve-year-old Oz fan when Baum died, and became a Baum scholar when he grew up. The fans had captured the citadel; and they have been there ever since. In the 1970s, two more of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s books were published by the International Wizard of Oz Club; this fan organization went on to print many more Oz books over the following decades. Most recently, Sherwood Smith’s three Oz sequels have been officially recognized by the Baum family trust. On the other hand, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist retelling, Wicked and its sequels, has been officially snubbed, for good reason. The moral of Wicked, as of so much modern nihilist fantasy, could be summed up in a sentence: ‘Evil is Cool, and anyway, it was forced to be Evil because Good is Even Worse.’ This is a sentiment that Baum (like nearly all of his generation) would have regarded with plain horror. And then there is the straightforward Oz fan fiction, not commercially published, and not officially recognized or deprecated by anyone. We can say that Ozamataz, the peculiar fake-but-effective magic of the Wizard, leaked out of the books, made its tour through the lively century-long phenomenon of Oz fandom, and eventually came full circle as the fans grew up to write Oz books themselves. In this wider or larger sense, ozamataz could be defined as the particular blend of creativity and publicity that inheres in a self-sustaining fandom, which has the power to call forth new work in the canon if the original authors cease to supply it. Oz, of course, is not the only franchise with this kind of ozamataz. Sherlock Holmes was a still earlier example. Arthur Conan Doyle thought he had done with his famous consulting detective when he killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls; but the fans would not let ill alone, and forced him to go on writing stories about the resurrected Holmes for thirty more years. Since then, everyone and his dog has had a go at writing unofficial Holmes stories. The pastiches are beyond counting, from Sexton Blake to House and Sherlock. Several of the modern media franchises have definite ozamataz. Star Trek, after the early cancellation of the original series, was kept alive by fan fiction, and Pocket Books’ line of Trek novels became a stepping-stone for many young science fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the Trek franchise has entirely escaped the de facto control, though not the de jure ownership, of Paramount Studios. Groups of fans from America to Turkey have produced films in the style of the original series, some as remakes of the original scripts, some with new material written for the purpose. Doctor Who had a large and thriving fandom when the BBC axed the series in 1989; the novels and radio plays kept coming all through the show’s 16-year hiatus, and in the end it was a lifelong fan of the show, Russell T. Davies, who brought it back into production. When Davies left the revived series, he handed it off to Steven Moffat, another old Whovian, who first came to notoriety as the screenwriter of the parody, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death. Star Wars fandom has a more complex and ambiguous relationship with the creator of its franchise. In the earliest phase, the fans contented themselves with the strange ritual activity of watching the original film over and over, obsessively, often dozens of times – a substantial act of devotion in the pre-VCR era, when each viewing meant paying admission to the cinema. They collected the toys, posters, comics, and other merchandise, of course. But the real breakthrough came after George Lucas himself lost interest in his creation. Once it became clear that he would never tell us what happened after Return of the Jedi, a host of fan writers and young SF professionals brought us the Expanded Universe, more or less with the blessing of Lucasfilm. The Expanded Universe received a heavy shock with the release of the prequel films, which contradicted much of the fan canon. Many of the fans hated the prequels, but they accepted them as canon, and the Expanded Universe was reworked to fit the new official corpus. Then Lucas sold the whole Star Wars franchise to Disney. The corporate entity known as ‘The Mouse’ first thrilled the fans, by announcing that Episodes VII through IX would be produced at long last. Then it alarmed and consternated them, by handing the job of directing Episode VII to J. J. Abrams, and leaking bits of story and casting information, which suggested that this would be yet another ham-handed Disney effort to cash in on a creative property that it might own, but did not understand. Then came the war. Earlier this year, The Mouse announced that the entire Expanded Universe was no longer regarded as canon. The slate is being wiped entirely clean. A new canon of post-Jedi stories is to be called into being, starting with Chuck Wendig’s widely panned Aftermath. The far superior work of Timothy Zahn, as well as decades of writing and other creative work by countless fans, has been summarily dismissed. You could hear the screams of the neckbeards from Greenland to Antarctica. So what will become of Star Wars? History suggests some possibilities that ought to give Disney pause. Several years ago, Hasbro, through its Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, made a similar head-on attack against its own customers. The third edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game had been a resounding commercial success. Part of that success was due to the crowdsourcing of the basic rules. D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were based on the ‘d20 System’, an open-source rules set to which many hands contributed. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tabletop role-playing games based on that system. Players can move freely from one setting to another without having an entirely new set of game mechanics to learn; settings and adventures written for one game can be easily adapted for another. D&D benefited hugely from this creative cross-fertilization. But the bean-counters at Hasbro were not satisfied. They wanted to recapture control of the D&D franchise, to make it their own exclusive property again. And the only way to do that was to abandon the d20 System and create a new, incompatible set of rules. This was bad enough; but Fourth Edition D&D was a conceptual disaster. All previous versions of the game had attempted to recreate the tropes and atmosphere of sword-and-sorcery fiction on the tabletop. D&D 4.0 tried to recreate online role-playing games on the tabletop. Instead of being a game about a fantasy world, it was a game about another game. And the complex real-time mechanics of something like World of Warcraft, which work smoothly enough when you have computers and server farms to do all the heavy calculation, are impossibly cumbersome when human beings have to crunch all the numberrs with pencil and paper. The Fourth Edition failed abysmally; and since Hasbro discontinued all the Third Edition products when it released the new system, the fans were left to twist in the wind. They were rescued from this fate by a tiny startup company. Paizo Games released its own heroic fantasy rules based on the d20 System (which still remains in the public domain, available for anyone to use). Pathfinder is cleverly reverse-engineered to be maximally compatible with D&D 3.5, while introducing certain changes that tend to make the mechanics more elegant and streamlined. It is exactly what D&D 4.0 should have been. At first, Paizo did not even have the money to release Pathfinder in print; the original rules were made freely available for download as a PDF file. This was a stroke of genius. Thousands of disaffected D&D players switched to the free Pathfinder rules, then clamoured for printed and bound copies. That gave Paizo the pre-orders it needed to start mass production of printed Pathfinder products; and now, if you go to any tabletop game shop (except Games Workshop, which sells only its own proprietary kit), you will find racks full of Pathfinder products and a distinct dearth of D&D offerings. It remains to be seen whether Star Wars fandom will reject the new Disney canon and cleave loyally to the old Expanded Universe. They have the disadvantage that nobody can reverse-engineer the original films. Disney will always have a hold over the fans through its control of the copyrights. But fan fiction and fan art operate in a world right outside the fences of intellectual property law. It may be that the ozamataz of Star Wars will be preserved through a kind of fan samizdat; that the really dedicated (and therefore profitable) fans of the franchise will tune out the official Disney offerings, and keep their own collaborative work as a separate canon in its own right. Or it could be that neither the Disney canon nor the Expanded Universe fandom will thrive. One thing is certain: The hand of Oz, the Great and Powerful, has been turned against The Mouse, and The Mouse brought it on itself. I do not mean to give the impression that ozamataz has become exclusively a property of game and film franchises. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien exhibit ozamataz par excellence. Tolkien’s story, in one respect, is curiously like Baum’s. After the publication of The Hobbit, he was bombarded with letters from children wanting ‘more about Hobbits’. But being a more serious and scholarly writer than Baum, and haunted moreover by a legendarium that he had been working away on for over twenty years, he was unable to tread Baum’s path. He did not grind out dozens of children’s books about the further adventures of Bagginses and Tooks, as he might have done. Instead, he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the ozamataz jumped to an adult audience. The entire modern category of epic fantasy is the offspring of his work. The magnum opus was traduced on film through the efforts of well-meaning, if not well-informed, Tolkien fans, and so became known to hundreds of millions. At the opposite end of the media scale, a tiny but devoted coterie of fans write and publish pseudo-learned journals about Tolkien’s invented languages. Nobody has yet got round the Tolkien estate’s blanket prohibition on the commercial publication of fan fiction; but when Tolkien’s copyrights expire, we shall probably see that as well. A few other literary properties have ozamataz: most notably Harry Potter. One fandom exhibits the strange property of anti-ozamataz. The Wheel of Time had millions of readers, but did not attract a large community of creative fans; there is, I believe, comparatively little Wheel of Time fan fiction or fan art. This may be because nearly all the imaginative elements in the series were stolen from earlier and better writers, and any free play being done with those elements is happening in those writers’ fandoms – most notably the fandoms of Tolkien and of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. But the reverse ozamataz shows up very clearly in the Amazon reviews of the later Wheel of Time books. Nobody has begun a series with such lavish promises, or so blatantly failed to keep them; though George R. R. Martin may eventually come close. Beginning with about the fifth book, and with increased volume and stridency thereafter, Jordan’s fans complain about the glacial pace of the story, the bad writing, the endless chasing of side issues and subsidiary characters. Hundreds of the reviews, both on Amazon and on innumerable fan blogs, end with the reviewer swearing never to buy another instalment; but all too often, that same reviewer will return to the series like a dog to his vomit, and make all the same complaints, with the same hollow threat, about the next book. It reminds me of an old joke – speaking of dogs. An old Kentucky colonel was sitting on his veranda, sipping julep and greeting the neighbours as they passed by. His old yellow hound dog lay near him. Every so often, the dog would lift up its head and emit a heart-wrenching howl of pain and distress. ‘What the nation is the matter with that dog?’ a visitor asked. ‘Oh, don’t pay him no mind,’ said the colonel. ‘He’s just a-settin’ on a nail.’ ‘A nail! Well then, why don’t he get up off of it?’ The colonel thought gravely about this. ‘Well, sir, I reckon it only hurts enough to complain.’ Some fandoms are held together by admiration for a creative artist’s work; some by emulation. And then there are those, like Jordan’s fandom, or the Star Wars fans when discussing the prequels, that are held together by the shared pleasure of criticism, because it only hurts enough to complain. The one impulse leads to fan fiction; the other, to fan deconstruction. Both are legitimate amusements, I suppose; but I know which I would rather spend my time on. The great trouble of any writer, in this world of soundbites and YouTube and virtually free publishing, is to stand out from the crowd; to get his work noticed. The traditional methods of promotion hardly work at all any longer, unless backed by (at minimum) the hype machinery of a major motion-picture studio. On the other hand, an obscure and unheralded artist may suddenly ‘go viral’. When this happens, or at least, when it endures beyond the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ prescribed by Andy Warhol, it is proof of the power of ozamataz. The question, then, is how to attract ozamataz. Can one catch that particular kind of lightning in a bottle, or draw it down with a lightning rod? There do not seem to be any sufficient qualities to guarantee that a work or a franchise will develop a self-sustaining fandom. But perhaps we can identify the necessary qualities; and if we can work with those things in mind, we may increase our chances from zero to something that gives grounds for hope. For it is the fans, in the end, who work the real magic when it happens. Would you know the secret of Oz, the Great and Powerful? Look behind the curtain, and you will find it: ten thousand geeks in hall costumes.
  Read about what makes Ozamataz possible in ‘Legosity’.

Zeno’s mountains

A new essai to follow ‘Death carries a camcorder’. The meme that gave rise to my original LiveJournal pieces asked for ‘ten things I hate in a book’; but being under no obligation to stick to the original terms, I add to the list ad libitum.
According to local legend, one of the first tourists to visit Calgary (then a Northwest Mounted Police fort with a few civilian outbuildings) was an Englishman of energetic habits but not, it seems, with any wide experience of the world. One morning, having rested from the rigours of his journey, he decided to take his morning constitutional by walking to the Rocky Mountains and back. In those days you could see the mountains easily from the N.W.M.P. fort, small but sharp and clear on the western horizon. In England, of course, nothing looks sharp and clear more than a few miles away. In that mild and humid air, every distant object is more or less obscured and coloured by haze: minor English poets can always eke out their verses with facile rubbish about ‘blue remembered hills’. In the dry cold highlands of Alberta, there is no such haze; objects on the horizon, on a sunny day, are very nearly as clear as those immediately at hand. But our English tourist knew nothing of this, and set out with the idea of visiting the mountains and getting back to the fort in time for breakfast. Five or six miles out, the Englishman, who must already have been rather footsore and perplexed, clambered up the long ridge that would later be called Signal Hill. Cresting the ridge, he would have been appalled to discover a wide plain sloping gently down for several miles before him. Beyond that rose the first tumbled range of the true foothills, towards which, disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Behind that range is the Kananaskis valley, and then the last range of foothills before the beginning of the actual mountains — some fifty miles west of Fort Calgary as the crow flies. Several days later, a searching party found the Englishman and brought him back to the fort to recuperate. Something rather similar happens to writers who visit Elfland; even today, when the map of that country has been scribbled over with marked trails and motorways, the lesson of distance is one that every traveller must discover for himself. It is notoriously a place where journeys take longer than expected: short stories turn into novels, and novels turn into trilogies, and trilogies turn into the high felony that has sometimes been called ‘Aggravated Trilogy’ in the statute-books of the critics. This has been going on as long as people have been writing deliberate works of fantasy, yet somehow the experience of it comes as a complete surprise to each new victim. Tolkien himself was one of the early victims, so that for many years, the kind of critics who had never been to Elfland, and prided themselves on not knowing the place, would point sneeringly at the mere length of The Lord of the Rings as if that alone were sufficient proof that it was egregiously padded. For some reason or other, they did not say the same thing about Anthony Adverse or War and Peace, both of which are much the same length, nor even about the 4,215 back-breaking pages of A la recherche du temps perdu. There is some padding in the earlier parts of The Fellowship of the Ring, to be sure; some of the verses could be cut, and some of the ‘hobbit-talk’, and probably the whole business of Tom Bombadil; but the second and third volumes are tightly plotted and could hardly be reduced without fatal damage to the story. And yet the padding in those early chapters is there; there was more of it in the first few drafts; and strange to say, Tolkien put it in deliberately. The unexpected success of The Hobbit led his publisher (and readers) to clamour for ‘more about Hobbits’; he complied only reluctantly and with misgivings. Two months after beginning ‘the new Hobbit’, he wrote to C. A. Furth:
The Hobbit sequel is still where it was, and I have only the vaguest notions of how to proceed. Not ever intending any sequel, I fear I squandered all my favourite ‘motifs’ and characters on the original ‘Hobbit’.
With no clear idea what the sequel should be about or where it was going, Tolkien threw in all sorts of odd ingredients. He knew very well that he was making stone soup, and was not about to reject any idea that would help him keep the story moving and pad it out to a suitable length. Tom Bombadil had first appeared in the Oxford Magazine, unconnected with Hobbits and Middle-earth; but he could be made to fit, so into the pot he went. Then there were Barrow-wights and Black Riders and other adventures by the way, and the inn at Bree (a spontaneous invention), where Tolkien found a mysterious Hobbit with wooden shoes, nicknamed ‘Trotter’: the first faint origin of the character that would eventually be revealed as Aragorn. The soup was already getting rather full of herbs and seasonings, but it still needed meat — a principal ingredient to supply the stock and unite all the other things into a harmonious whole. One day, the ‘meat’ came to Tolkien in a flash of insight. Bilbo’s magic ring was not just a stock fairy-tale ring of invisibility; it was the ring, the One Ring that ruled all the others, and Sauron (who had already appeared in several unpublished stories) was trying desperately to find it. At the Council of Elrond, which seems to have been a process of discovery and decision for the author as much as for the characters, it came out (after several drafts) that the only way to defeat Sauron was to destroy the Ring. That was the unifying device Tolkien needed — the meat for the soup — and from that moment, it was stone soup no longer. But he had already dragged in so many ideas and characters and complications that it could not all be worked out quickly. Up to this point Tolkien, like the Englishman in our local legend, had only been climbing the first high ridge beyond the fort, in the mistaken belief that the mountains were immediately beyond it. With the discovery of the One Ring, he saw for the first time a wide stretch of country that he had to traverse before reaching the true foothills; and disappointed but not daunted, he plodded on. Five years after he began ‘the new Hobbit’, he informed Stanley Unwin with naive and touching faith:
It is now approaching completion. I hope to get a little free time this vacation, and might hope to finish it off early next year. . . . It has reached Chapter XXXI and will require at least six more to finish.
In fact Chapter XXXI was ‘Flotsam and Jetsam’ — Book III, chapter 9 in the published epic; just about halfway through The Two Towers. There were in fact another thirty-one chapters to go. Since Rohan and Gondor, the War of the Ring, and Gollum (not yet ‘tamed’) had already been introduced to the tale, it is hard to imagine how Tolkien could have thought that he would finish it all in just six. But there was Mount Doom — so clear, so tantalizingly close! He could not accept, could not perhaps even imagine, that it would take seven more years of struggle and revision before he brought the story to its conclusion. He had set out to take a morning constitutional, and ended by making the journey of a lifetime. The Lord of the Rings has been the great exemplar (and fatal temptation) of every writer of epic fantasy since; and we might suppose that subsequent writers in the field would have learnt this along with its other lessons. We would be disappointed. One writer after another has set out to write a long-form fantasy tale, and grossly underestimated the size of the task and the length of the finished work. In one of his moments of wisdom, David Eddings observed that a man who has never walked a mile on his own legs has no clear idea how far a mile is. It seems that a writer who has never written a trilogy has no clear idea what a trilogy is, either. To judge how long a story will have to be, it appears, you have to have personal experience at writing stories of that size; and of course no one starts out with such experience. In short stories and ordinary novels, this does not pose a problem. The novice writer has to finish his stories before he can hope to sell them; and with a finished text, a publisher always knows how far apart to put the covers of the book. But in fantasy especially, writers routinely sign publishing contracts for long series when only the first volume (or none at all) has been completed. The rest of the series is a gigantic promissory note, and many a writer has found himself bankrupted by the compound interest on his own projected tale. Tad Williams is one of these. His first long epic, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, was sold to DAW Books as a trilogy, and duly published as such. The Dragonbone Chair is a hefty book, but it delivers exactly what Williams and his publisher called for — the first third of the story, as projected at the time. The Stone of Farewell is much the same size; but it becomes increasingly apparent by the end of that book that the story is not two-thirds done. To Green Angel Tower, as a result, is a monster. DAW was just able to publish it in hardcover as a single volume of over 1,000 pages, though it had to be set in smaller type to fit in one binding. It would have been about 1,600 pages in paperback, which is considerably more than a mass-market binding can hold together. So DAW was reduced to the rather ludicrous expedient of releasing the paperback as a two-volume volume — To Green Angel Tower, Part 1 and To Green Angel Tower, Part 2. Wiser heads might have surrendered to the inevitable a little sooner and with better grace, and divided the oversized third volume in two from the outset. Then at least each volume would have had its own title, instead of the third and fourth books sharing one title between them. Williams and DAW did just that with his next series, Otherland, which also proved too long for the originally projected three books. His recent Shadowmarch series repeats the procedure. Indeed, it would not be unfair to describe Tad Williams as a professional writer of four-volume trilogies. The real master criminals of Aggravated Trilogy, however, were yet to come. The late Robert Jordan originally planned The Wheel of Time as a tightly-plotted six-book series, which, even so, would have been the largest epic fantasy yet conceived and written as a single story. In the event, Jordan died after finishing eleven books (plus a prequel), leaving notes for the twelfth and last; and that book turned out to be so long that it had to be divided into three. The result, after nearly thirty years’ work by two authors, was a sheer monstrosity, a soap opera sprawling over fifteen fat volumes, to a total length of more than four million words. Those four million words, I am afraid, contain a great deal of deliberate padding. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, that Jordan was asked by his publisher, Tom Doherty, and his editor/wife, Harriet McDougal, to stretch the series out to more volumes and so exploit its huge commercial success. Certainly a lot of his readers felt exploited. Customers’ reviews of the middle volumes on Amazon.com make amusing reading. From about the fifth volume on, there begin to be large numbers of one-star reviews, increasingly strident and despondent, complaining that the story is being drawn out with pointless detail and needlessly elaborated subplots, and that each book brings the main plot no closer to a conclusion. There are endless descriptions of characters’ clothing, and where the clothing was made, and by whom, and when; and endless scenes of the hero’s various mistresses conspiring together, or against one another, and being spanked, a particular Jordan specialty; and of subordinate characters making tea, drinking tea, gossiping over tea, and in at least one case, being poisoned by tea. Adam Roberts, in his wittily scathing review of the series, has described the cumulative effect as ‘epic Miss Marple’. By the eighth book, these readers are saying openly that they have been swindled, that they are swearing off Jordan and will not waste any more of their money on a series that will evidently never end. Yet many of the same people returned to the series, as the dog returns to his vomit, only to make the same complaints about volumes nine, ten, and eleven. Sad to say, the news of Jordan’s death, and the hiring of Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, actually gave these long-suffering customers a new feeling of hope — a feeling that the tale actually would be finished, that at long last Doherty and McDougal would bid its swelling expanse be stayed and swell no further. The first book under Sanderson’s byline did not much encourage this hope. The Gathering Storm was a fine title for the first volume in Churchill’s monumental history of the Second World War; it is rather less fine as the title of the twelfth volume in a series. One might reasonably expect that the storm would be well and truly gathered by then. Since then, the crown, if we may call it that, has passed on to George R. R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire was always intended to be a large work, but it, too, has grown in the telling. With more than the usual effrontery, Martin dealt with the proliferation of subplots and the slowing of forward momentum simply by fission: he divided the enormous cast of viewpoint characters into two sets, and dealt with them alternately, so that the fourth and fifth books in the series cover the same span of time in different parts of the map. Whether he will get a grip on the reins again in the remaining volumes, or let the horse have its head and go galloping off in all directions for the rest of his days, is still an open question. I have met Mr. Martin once or twice, and I met Robert Jordan once, and in each case I had the strong impression that I was not talking to a well person. If Martin were to follow Jordan’s descent into the void, and die with his magnum opus still unfinished, I would be saddened but not, I fear, surprised. At present he plans to finish the series in seven books, a plan, he says, that is firm ‘until I decide not to be firm’. Perhaps it will be his great good fortune to die in harness at the age of 105, still scribbling away at the twenty-fourth and final (we mean it this time) book of the series. In less flagrant cases, the growth can be contained short of metastasis; that is, without subdividing the story into more books. J. K. Rowling handled the Harry Potter series in this way. The first three books are neat little novels of the size that publishers used to prefer for juvenile books. After that, Rowling got on more slowly; the drafts grew longer, and because readers by the million were clamouring for each successive book, her publishers developed a distressing habit of wrestling the first draft out of her grip as soon as it was finished and publishing it more or less unedited. The later books would have benefited a good deal from judicious cutting; but the publishers calculated (quite correctly) that they would sell in boatloads without it, and did not propose to delay the releases for editorial work that was not commercially necessary. As a result, the Harry Potter books make a very odd-looking set on a shelf: three thin books followed by four increasingly fat ones. This posed a severe puzzle for the filmmakers, who finally had to deal with the sprawl of The Deathly Hallows by dividing it into two films: the Tad Williams method again. The cumulative effect of all this is to make it seem that epic fantasy writers are by nature sprawling, slovenly, and self-indulgent. Some are, no doubt, but most are defeated by the nature of the medium — and of human experience. You set out to write an epic, and figure out what the story will be about, and who the heroes are, and what kinds of places you want to visit along the way; and you divide your outline into roughly equal thirds, and expect to write a trilogy. But the story has an exasperating way of growing bigger as you go along. The mountain that you chose for your destination turns out to be twice the size you originally thought, and consequently, twice as far away; and having travelled two-thirds of the distance you planned for, you find you are only one-third of the way there. Then, if your series has been a commercial success so far, you may find your publisher happily playing along, encouraging you to spin it out into as many books as they can profitably sell. If not, you are liable to be dropped in mid-series and never reach the destination at all. Once you have completed one of these epic journeys, you will know in your muscles and your bones how long the journey is, and how much the real distance exceeds the apparent distance; and the next time you make such a journey, you can go forewarned. So Tad Williams discovered that what looked (to him) like three volumes would reliably turn out to be four, and he has learnt to pack an extra lunch. But if you set out on a journey the size of Jordan’s, you may not live long enough to profit by the lesson. The only person who knows in his bones how a six-book journey turns into fifteen is Jordan, and his bones are lying in the graveyard and will not make any more journeys now. I do not know of any general solution to this problem; perhaps no general solution is possible. The tragedy of life, they say, is that it takes a whole lifetime to learn how to live. That tragedy is doubled for travellers in Elfland: the elves are immortal, but the travellers are not. And just as, in the old tales, a mortal man could spend one night with the elves to find that a hundred years had passed in the outside world, a fantasy writer can easily spend the best years of his working life covering a few fleeting days in the history of his invented world. If there is a solution, it will demand a quality that our ancestors valued highly, but that we have almost forgotten: they used to call it wisdom. It is truly said that fools learn by experience; wise men learn by watching fools — and by taking to heart the rules and maxims that other wise men have distilled from the experience of fools. Perhaps there is some rule or maxim that a wise man could devise to solve the paradox of epic fantasy, as there is (nowadays) a rule for solving the rather similar paradox of motion, first presented by Zeno of Elea. One form of Zeno’s paradox explains that it is impossible, from any starting-point A, to reach a fixed destination Ω. To get there, you first have to get to point B, halfway between A and Ω. But then you have to get to point C, which is halfway between B and Ω; and so on. By the time you reach point Y, which is halfway between X and Ω, you will be heartily cursing the name of Zeno and wishing you had never set out on such an impossible journey. Or if your name is Newton or Leibniz, you will notice that each stage of the journey takes only half as long as the last, until you are adding up an infinite number of infinitesimals. Then you will pause to catch your breath and invent calculus, add up all the infinitesimals, and reach Ω in a finite time. The wisdom that could solve the paradox of epic fantasy may likewise be a matter of mathematics. What we want is a formula that will tell us, as a general rule, how much longer the actual story is likely to be compared to the outlined or projected story. Tad Williams worked out a solution for his own special case: if it looks like three books, it will actually take four. Extrapolating this to cover other situations is the tricky part, and that problem has not yet been solved. Of course, even with a general solution, we would still need the wisdom and the will to do what it prescribes. That is, I think, largely a matter of courage: it means having the guts to wrap up a successful series while the readers are still calling for more, instead of spinning it out to greater and greater lengths for easy profit. It means trusting our talent and our skill — knowing that if we can finish this one tale, the Muse will not desert us; there will be other tales to tell, and if we choose the best one available, our audience will follow us there. Elfland is large, and those who have once visited it nearly always want to return. We need to put our trust in that; and we need the wisdom to measure our journeys in proportion to our writing lives. As long as writers lack that wisdom and that trust, they are likely to go on making journeys that never seem to reach their destinations, but merely peter out, defeated by the paradox of Zeno’s mountains.

Teaching Pegasus to crawl

The fourth essai in a series, following ‘Tyrion 13:4’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
  As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at. It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, which I referred to earlier. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better. After some preliminary rumblings, the field of fantasy became a real commercial genre very suddenly. I have written about the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing. It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home. In Northrop Frye’s taxonomy, as propounded in Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers. I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Some time ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland. All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. Le Guin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth. ‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’
This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches. Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:
The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.
That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of the Big Bang fantasies of 1977. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien. See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail. For this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am dissecting is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic. Le Guin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:
The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly. ‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’
When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why. By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose. Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:
On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.
It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell (or even omit) essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same. Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:
She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way. The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!” Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!
Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant soon squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. Like Tolkien, unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all. But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland. One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning. Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow. Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.
This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day’. We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long. Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.

Wendy S. Delmater on ‘The Wheel of Time’

It’s one thing to beat a dead horse. It’s another thing to marry it.

—Wendy S. Delmater, publisher & editor of Abyss & Apex

Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

This essai follows ‘Quakers in Spain’, and like it, is a revised and expanded version of a piece I wrote and put up on LiveJournal in May, 2006.
  If prose style in fantasy is fraught with peril, naming is a plain old-fashioned minefield. Fantasy writers have a tendency to throw together names from any and all sources that strike their fancy, without thinking how such disparate words came to be in the same language together, or even in the same world. Writers who are very good at other aspects of their craft can still inexplicably fall down in this one area. I am sorry to make a bad example of my friend Jonathan Moeller, but when I first began to read his Demonsouled series, and the first two characters I met were called Mazael and Gerald, I was thrown out of the story long enough to cry aloud to the unheeding night: ‘Mazael is good; Mazael is right and proper. There ought to be a fantasy hero named Mazael, and now, thank God, there is one. But why on earth is he hanging out with someone whose name is a foreign monstrosity like Gerald?’ In Le Guin’s terms, Mazael is from Elfland and Gerald is from Poughkeepsie, and there needs to be some explanation of how they ever came to meet. There are two bad ways of coming up with fantasy names; or rather, of the many bad ways that one could devise, two are much more popular than the rest. One is to name people and places with the kind of jumble one might get by rolling Perquackey dice. This will do for a joke, or for a private diversion like a role-playing game: a friend of mine once did yeoman service with a character unfortunately named Hogheospox. But it is unkind to inflict such names on the reading public; especially your public. The opposite error is the perfectly mundane name with a coat of bad paint. I am referring to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies. Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:
‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’
Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun. But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second. George R. R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune; or rather, they seem to be playing about three different tunes at once, and the tunes don’t harmonize. In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious (unless he intended them not to be, like ‘lovely Lugbúrz’) and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it. As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell. The C stands for Cat, you see; it is a natural contraction, like the one you occasionally used to see for Scottish names — MacLeod reduced to M’Leod, as it is in one of Kipling’s stories. What’s more, Smith actually unbends far enough to explain this. The average perpetrator of Aggravated Apostrophe couldn’t explain why she sticks pothooks in the middle of words, not to save her life, her soul, and her poetic licence. Or at any rate, she doesn’t bother. Likewise, it is only right and just that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike, and that he should apprentice for a time under an old medico by the name of Prunesquallor. (It is still more right and just that the medico should have a ghastly sister named Irma Prunesquallor.) These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on some of the glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language. This is a great timesaver. An honourable mention — I owe this observation to my friend John C. Wright — should go to David Lindsay, for some of the names in his infinitely strange novel, Voyage to Arcturus. Despite the name and the ostensible setting, this book really belongs to the genre of fictionalized philosophical declamations, like Atlas Shrugged, rather than science fiction or fantasy as such; which is one of the reasons why it has gone out of vogue, and (frequently) out of print. But Lindsay must have been a considerable influence on Smith and Peake, with his protagonist Maskull, and characters with names like Krag and Nightspore. These names are not all euphonious and certainly not all of one linguistic type, but they are striking and evocative, and that makes up for some of their deficiencies. Lindsay’s onomastic triumphs, known to thousands who have never read any of his books, are jale and ulfire, the two primary colours that one sees in the Arcturian sunlight, but never on earth. Those names are so suggestive that I can almost imagine what they look like. Jale, to me, suggests a colour between red and green that is nevertheless not yellow; pale like milky jade (for all I know, the name may be a portmanteau of jade and pale), but as bright and vivid as any colour you can see through a prism. (I have read that women with the recessive gene for colour-blindness sometimes report seeing such a red-green colour, but I don’t know what it looks like to them.) Ulfire suggests a torridly brilliant colour somewhere beyond violet, which would affect the human eye somewhat like the purplish-white of the very hottest lightning. Lindsay describes ulfire as ‘wild and painful’, and jale as ‘dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous’. I can well imagine those descriptions fitting with colours of the sort I have described, though I came up with those impressions from the words alone, without ever having read any part of the book. The names are just that magnificently evocative. Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Inventing languages, like writing archaic English (or, as Le Guin says, bicycling and computer programming), is one of those things you have got to know how to do before you can do it. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice, alas; and so the ghraem’lans, I fear, will be with us for a long time to come.